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Mountain Goat

Mountain goat is a locally abundant game animal that has long been eaten by Indigenous Peoples who had 1) access to mountainous habitats and 2) the skills to hunt in rugged terrain [1]. Goats are therefore important to particular cultures in particular places, but their importance and use is not nearly as widespread as hoofed-mammals like caribou or moose [2, 3]. Fossil remains of goat were discovered at prehistoric Southern Alaskan archeological sites [4, 5]. It was reported as one of the principal game animals hunted by the Spuzzum, Gitksan, Lower Thompson, Kitsumkalum, Tahltan, Tutchone, Haisla, Sekani, Wenatchee, Yukon Indians, Entiat, Chilkat, Tlingit, Inland Tlingit, Chelan tribes of the Middle Columbia River, Chilcotin, Salish, Interior Salish, Northern Coast Salish, Interior Dene, Eyak, Bella Coola (Nuxalk) and Tagish [6, 7]. Goat was also used by the Kaska, Kutenai, Klauhuse, Homalco, Katzie, Stick Chilcotin, Stone Chilcotin, and other Northwest Coast Indians [8]. When goat was available it was also used by the British Columbia Inland tribes, Plateau People, Central Coast Salish, Lakes tribes, Similkameen, Shuswap, Tanaina, Haihais, Bella Bella, Tlingit, Lillooet, Tsimshian and Oowekeeno [9, 10]. Goat was eaten on occasion by the Okanagan, First Nations residents in Teslin and Whitehorse [11]. The Shuswap consumed goat meat only when other game animals were scarce [6, 10, 12, 13]. The Northwest Kutenai, Stseelis, Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw), and Tahltan had access to a significant amount of goat [13]. Due to difficulty associated with acquiring goat, the Kootenai hunted them only occasionally [14]. Although mountain goat was a traditional food it was often reserved for upper class Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia [15]. Mountain goat was rarely consumed by Yukon First Nations families but it was commonly hunted by Kwakiutl people [14, 16].

Mountain goat was usually hunted in summer when the animal was fat and the terrain was easiest to navigate [17, 18]. While the Eyak, Wet’suwet’en and Gitksan hunted goat mainly in summer [19] the animal was hunted throughout the year by the Tanaina and Tlingit, [20] and the Nuxalk preferred to hunt September to February [21]. The Tlingit preserved meat acquired in summer when the animal was plentiful, however they preferred the fresh goat meat hunted in winter [8, 21].

The Carrier, Tanaina, Wet’suwet’en, Gitksan and Subarctic Indians hunted mountain goats while on expeditions to the mountains [22]. Only the Sekani and Coast Salish who lived in certain areas could hunt mountain goat while the Lower Ahtna only had access to mountain goat that dwelled in the Chugach Range and the Shuswap went to the Rocky Mountains [23]. The Tahltan had access to mountain goats on the Stikine Plateau while the Tlingit accessed mountain goats in the mountains along the coast [24]. While Eskimo in Alaska had access to mountain goat, they had greater interest in caribou [25]. Similarly, the Southern Alaskans ate goat when deer was not available [23, 26]. The Shuswap also ate goat meat when other game was scarce [23, 26]. Although the Lillooet people considered mountain goat a natural resource, it was not found throughout the area. Greater availability existed in the Lower Lillooet region [17]. Many Indigenous Peoples of British Columbia traveled to the mountains for explicit goat hunting trips [27].

Mountain goats were often herded with the help of dogs towards hunters waiting with spears, arrows or guns [15]. The Tlingit, Thompson and Central Coast Salish used arrows to kill mountain goat [28]. Snares, often made from willow branches, were used in addition to arrows [23]. The Chilkat used a sharp strong stick to kill goats since bows were often damaged while climbing the mountain [13]. The Wenatchee, Entiat, and Chelan tribes used a peculiar method of attracting mountain goat with pieces of white fur [29]. The Eyak, Nuxalk, Southern Kwakiutl, Chilkat, Tlingit, Haisla, Tanaina, Haihais, Bella Bella and Oowekeeno used dogs to chase goat [26]. The Shuswap ambushed mountain goats behind blinds built of sticks [18]. A common strategy used in hunting goat was to get above or ahead of them, since these animals were known to look down or back and see predators approaching [18]. From higher position on the cliffs, the hunter could herd a goat into a ideal location where it could be killed with greater ease [30].

The Tahltan hunted mountain goat in small groups or in pairs using tracking and stalking strategies [31]. The Tinglit hunted mountain goats by climbing to various posts on the mountain and chasing the animals into the open where they could be shot with arrows [25]. In addition, Tlingit hunters drove mountain goats into gorges and off cliffs [24]. Stalo hunters did not use dogs but stalked goats individually, or in pairs where one man would startle the animal and the second pushed it off the cliff with a stick [1]. Ideal locations to hunt goat were highly prized and were controlled by Chilkat chiefs [32]. Goat hunting trips were controlled by Wet’suwet’en and Gitksan group leaders, and were sometimes combined with women’s berry gathering activities in the winter [11].

Nuxalk villages only had a small number of specialized hunters that sought mountain goat; most effort was placed on acquiring sea animals [15]. The Squamish, Chilkat, and Tlingit considered goat hunting to be perilous and to require special hunting powers because of the treacherous rocky cliffs that had to be scaled to hunt the animals [14]. These hunters had to fast and cleanse themselves for a month prior to the ascent [33]. The Tlingit had similar hunting beliefs; since goats were the protectors of the “Mountain Man”, specific rituals had to be followed by the hunter and his wife [34]. The hunter had to abstain from sex and food and his wife placed rocks at the corners of her husband’s blanket with care that they were not disturbed, and she stopped combing her hair so her husband would not be brushed from the mountain [28].

The Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest coast did not fully remove the goatskin as it was used as a protective cover until most of the meat was consumed. Boiling meat was the principal method of cooking goat and the rendered grease was considered a delicacy [35]. The Gulf of Georgia Salish roasted goat and covered the goat head with down before cooking [1, 36]. 

Goat meat was often prepared and stored in the same way as deer or similar game [37]. Roasted goat meat was sometimes showered with down before it was cooked as a sign of respect to the deceased animal’s spirit [11, 36]. The Northern Coast Salish often roasted meat before transporting it to reduce the load they had to carry back to the village [32]. The Kwakiutl roasted the entire brisket over the fire, it was sliced in half when it was very large [32]. The Kwakiutl also savored goat meat steamed in earth ovens [32]. Excess goat meat was often cured to be eaten in the winter [26]. The Tlingit cured excess meat or roasted and stored it in euchalon (Thaleichthys pacificus) oil for the winter [38]. The Nuxalk ate goat meat fresh and did not cure the excess meat; however they commonly used freezers when they became available [13]. Upper Lillooet people dried goat meat in the sun for winter provisions whereas the Lower Lillooet people smoked it [32]. The Nuxalk generally smoked extra goat flesh, which was often their only source of game meat during the winter months [39].

Goat meat was a favorite of the Stalo and was described as containing a lot of fat and being tender [17]. Excess fat was kept and used as a flavoring for other foods [11, 23]. The Tlingit rendered fat which they solidified in the shape of cakes to be eaten or traded to those who had no access to goat. The fat was often eaten during special celebrations [11]. Goat fat was an excellent source of calories and the skin was eaten and highly favored. The skin was cleaned by pulling off the hair and then singeing the remaining strands until the skin began to shrink. The Kwakiutl steamed goat and the skin using a pit filled with hot coals and then covered with hemlock branches and layers of skunk cabbage. Holes were punched through it, water added, skunk cabbage placed to cover the holes, and then the pit was covered with earth and left to steam over night. The pit was uncovered in the morning and the meat and skin eaten [26].

The Kwakiutl removed the goat kidney fat, washed it, bit off mouthfuls, chewed them and placed the bits in a pot for stone boiling until melted. The melted fat was poured into hollowed kelp that was left to harden and then removed and wrapped in bark to store. This kidney tallow was used as protection against extreme cold or hot sun by rubbing it on the face. For extra protection, it was first chewed and then pressed onto the face to create a seal that prohibits the wind and cold from penetrating and reaching the skin [32].

Kwakiutl hunters would gift goat stomach fat to the chief to marry his daughter. If the chief had no daughter the hunter was given a new canoe, a gift for his wife or son’s wedding. When a hunter got married, he had to give his father-in-law goat fat and dried brisket, which was then sent to the chief in a canoe. The chief was to prepare a feast for all hunters and divided the leftovers equally to be taken home. The fat was divided and given to the men who brought it home for their wives. The women chewed on a piece of fat and put it on a stick, which they heated by the fire and sucked on the melted fat. Many songs were sung, and holding such a feast brought the hunter honor. The Kwakiutl always prepared goat meat to share with their neighbors. Brisket could be covered with tallow before being served. In addition, meat was steamed over hot coals, stone boiled, or roasted over a fire. If fresh meat was boiled in a kettle over a fire, guests skimmed the blood that rose to the surface with spoons until all the broth was gone, and the meat given to each guest [26, 40].

There were several beliefs and practices related to goat. For example, the whole Squamish community would sing to the head of the first goat slaughtered in order to ensure continued hunting throughout the season [1]. The Carrier of Bulky River were prohibited from eating mountain goat head, believing it would render the consumer faint or paralyzed [37]. Since goat has a low birth rate and particular habitat requirements, it is vulnerable to over-hunting. The Wet’suwet’en and Gitksan passed on myths that served as warnings to those who needlessly slaughtered the animals [24, 40].

Mountain goat was also hunted for purposes other than food [14, 41]. Goat skin was used to make clothing, bedding, carpets, containers, and dog sleds [42]; the skin of young goats was used to make baby cradles; skins were used as covers by the Upper Kutenai. The hair was used to make fish sacs and the sinew was used to make string, snares and twine. Goat horns were used to make tools, good luck articles, jewelry, and headdresses; the Kwakiutl carved horns into spoons. The wool was used to make blankets, including the well-known Chilkat blanket. Wool blankets were worn and greatly prized by Kwakiutl. Wool from two goats was required to weave a single blanket and was collected from trees and bushes in the spring when the animal shed its winter coat. The wool was also used to make pillows and backrests for babies’ cradles. The Squamish and the Samish sold goat wool to the Vancouver Island peoples. Goat fat was used to prepare medicines and rubs; it was also applied to the face prior to painting them. Many coastal peoples acquired goat products, such as dried meat and wool, through trade.


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The mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) is a medium-sized hoofed mammal occupying mountainous regions of western North America.

Like other members of the same family, including bison (Bison bison), muskox (Ovibos moschatus), and mountain sheep (Ovis spp.), male and female mountain goats have horns, but horns do not grow much bigger in males. Mountain goats are the only wild goat in North America, but have been confused with mountain sheep, particularly Dall’s sheep that share their white coloration. The French common name is chèvre de montagne and the Nisga’a People of northwestern British Columbia refer to the species as Matx. The genus name means “ram of the mountain” and the species name americanus reflects its North American distribution.

Mountain goats are a stocky, all white animal, with a notable beard and black curved (but not curled) horns. Adults typically weigh 72 kg, with males (billies) having larger bodies, horns and beards than females (nannies), but these sex differences are more subtle than in many other hoofed-mammals.

Mountain goats are agile and sure-footed climbers that frequently occupy steep, rocky habitats that are avoided by other mammals. They spend most of their lives at elevations above the treeline, up to the elevational limit of vegetation growth. Mountain goats are primarily grazers, with a diet composed primarily of grasses, sedges and herbs. Major predators include cougars, wolves and brown bears. Individuals form groups ranging from a few individuals to about 100, with groups generally larger in winter than in summer. Females enter estrus once per year, generally in November, are pregnant for six months, and give birth to usually one but occasionally two kids. Age at first reproduction is two to five years. Males and females rarely live longer than 10 and 16 years, respectively.

The total North American population of mountain goats is about 100,000 individuals, including close to 50,000 mountain goats in British Columbia and about 25,000 in Alaska. Most populations appear to be stable and reasonably well protected by the inaccessibility of their habitat and well-regulated human hunting.


Festa-Bianchet M, Côté SD: Mountain goats : ecology, behavior, and conservation of an alpine ungulate. Washington: Island Press; 2008.


Images provided below were obtained from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History - North American Mammals. Available from
Mountain goat
Credit: painting by Elizabeth McClelland from Kays and Wilson's Mammals of North America, © Princeton University Press (2002)
Credit: Data provided by NatureServe in collaboration with Bruce Patterson, Wes Sechrest, Marcelo Tognelli, Gerardo Ceballos, The Nature Conservancy — Migratory Bird Program, Conservation International — CABS, World Wildlife Fund — US, and Environment Canada — WILDSPACE.